GOGR Music History 
Blackwood Brothers

There is no group in the history of gospel music that can claim this promise more than the James Blackwood and the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. All things work together for good to them that love the Lord and are called according to his purpose. . .

After the airplane crash on June 30, 1954, James Blackwood vowed to never sing gospel music again. James could never imagine what life would be like without his dear friends, R.W. and Bill. Those gentlemen had brought such life to the quartet. In a moment of despair, James hastily made a decision that could have silenced the Blackwood Brothers forever. James knew that these gentlemen could never be replaced, so he decided to disband the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. He announced this decision to his friends and business partners, the Statesmen Quartet, as they drove him back to Memphis after the tragedy. However, God gave James the voice and the desire to spread His Word, and that Word would not be stilled.

James lost two dear friends. Not only were they dear friends, but they were excellent singers and entertainers. It was only through prayer and a deep trust in God that James decided to revive the Blackwood Brothers. Half of the vocalists were gone, so James had to trust God to open new doors for the quartet.

James didnít have to look far to find someone to fill the baritone slot for the Blackwood Brothers. R.W.ís brother, Cecil, had been singing with a part time group called the Songfellows and was a capable albeit inexperienced baritone singer. He would be whole heartedly accepted by the fans just because of who he was . . . another Blackwood. Cecil joined the quartet and stayed with the Blackwood Brothers until his death November 13, 2000. Although Cecil was a bit overwhelmed to be standing in his brotherís shoes, he soon fit the role quite nicely and became more comfortable in the role.

The bass position was a bit more difficult to fill. Bill Lyles had a smooth style and could enthrall a crowd with his kind smile. There were no Blackwoods to fill that role, so James had some very big shoes to fill. There were several candidates that had voices similar to Bill Lyles, but none of them seemed to be what James was searching for. James considered several candidates to fill the bass spot, but the one the kept playing on his mind was J.D. Sumner. His voice was worlds apart from Bill Lyles, but God kept putting the name of J.D. Sumner in Jamesí mind. James later said that J.D.ís version of "Oh Happy Day" is what convinced him that J.D. needed to become a member of the Blackwood Brothers.

J.D. Sumner was singing with the Sunshine Boys at the time, and he was having the time of his life! Life was good for the Sunshine Boys. They were making lots of money and having a great time doing so. No other gospel group wanted to appear on the program with the Sunshine Boys, for they would eat your sack lunch! The Sunshine Boys would steal the show. These guys were tremendous. Leaving the Sunshine Boys was the furthest thing from J.D. Sumnerís mind. If you would ask J.D., youíd find that he didnít even LIKE the Blackwood Brothers. He was about the only bass singer in gospel music that didnít apply for the job singing bass for the Blackwood Brothers.

The Blackwoods and Sunshine Boys had some disagreements in the past, so they werenít best of friends. However, Jake Hess kept telling James that J.D. Sumner was the man for the job. James nearly hired another singer, but finally relented and called J.D. Sumner and offered him the job. At first, J.D. declined, but he later agreed to talk to James about the opportunity the Blackwood Brothers offered. Without investing a dime, J.D. was made a partner in the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. This was one of the premier business decisions in gospel music.

The reformed quartet did their first concert in Clanton, Alabama at the site of the airplane crash. The quartet drew bigger crowds than ever before. Their record sales were tremendous, as were their sales of promotional literature. Their "Memorial Picture Album" sold like hotcakes as did recordings from the pre-crash quartet. Cecil Blackwood was immediately accepted as a member of the quartet but J.D. originally had a tough time filling the shoes of Bill Lyles. He soon realized that he had to make his own footprints. J.D. was trying to sing the arrangements that were made for Bill, and they just didnít fit his range. Finally, J.D. began to use his humor to win over the old Blackwood crowd. He was often the foil of Jamesí humor and was soon accepted for his own abilities.

People never forgot that the Blackwood Brothers won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts program. The quartet wasnít content to rest upon their laurels, and the newly formed group was invited to participate on the program once again. Again, history repeated itself as the Blackwood Brothers became the first two-time winner of the Talent Scouts program with their rendition of "The Good Book."

One of the greatest things that ever happened to the Blackwood Brothers was the hiring of J.D. Sumner. Not only was he a tremendous and versatile singer, but he was an astute businessman. The Blackwood Brothers afforded him the opportunity to spread his businessman wings.

Prior to J.D. joining the Blackwood Brothers, all gospel quartets traveled the roads in cars. This was quite uncomfortable for the 6'6" Mr. Sumner. J. D. convinced James that the quartet should explore using a bus as their mode of travel. After James gave J.D. the green light, he outfitted a bus to make travel a bit more comfortable. The world of traveling musicians has never been the same.

J.D. and Cecil soon put their heads together and came up with the idea of a convention of quartets. With the blessings of entrepreneur James, the Blackwood Brothers hosted the first National Quartet Convention in Memphis in 1957. This two-day event brought together the greatest gospel quartets in gospel music for a great program. The fruits of their labor continue today.

James Blackwood brought out the best in J.D. Sumner. Prior to joining the Blackwoods, J.D. had written two songs. One was "When Iím Alone" but does anyone remember "Working in the Sawmills for Jesus?" James encouraged J.D. to write songs, and soon more then half of the Blackwood repertoire was written by J.D. Sumner.

At the insistence of J.D. Sumner, the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet joined forces to form Skylite Records. This record company was established for gospel artists. It catered to their needs. Many of the greatest artists of the day had recordings on the Skylite label.

These singers remained intact for eleven years. Jackie Marshall left the quartet in 1958, and another seasoned gospel pianist, Wally Varner, took his place. Varner brought a rich gospel music heritage with him along with great piano skills. Not only was Varner a great pianist, but he was also a great song writer. His showmanship equaled that of Jackie Marshall and the quartet continued to flourish. Some of the greatest Blackwood Brothers recordings were made with Wally Varner at the piano.

Varner remained with the quartet for several years and was replaced by keyboard showman extraordinaire, Whitey Gleason. Gleasonís technique wasnít as flawless as Varner or Marshall, but he was a wonderful showman. Gleason also spent many years with his own group, the Jubilee Quartet, and was a great writer. Folks loved to see Whitey as he banged the piano keys like no other.

In the ever growing efforts to expand their hold on gospel music, the Blackwood Brothers purchased the Stamps Quartet Music Company. Along with this purchase came the fledgling Stamps Quartet. Although the Stamps name had been going for almost 40 years, the quartet was quite young and inexperienced. The Blackwood Brothers soon found out that the quartet needed some help if they were to be a money making organization.

Soon, more changes would come within the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Stay tuned next month!

I appreciate your comments both on the web site or at john@grandolegospelreunion.com. If you have questions, requests, or comments, I would be happy to respond to them.

 


 

 

 


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